This article is the remarks by Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Consulate General Lagos, Dehab Ghebreab at Access Bank and HACEY Health Initiative on Wednesday, December 16, 2015.
Good morning, and welcome! I want to congratulate Access Bank for hosting this event promoting the rights of people with disabilities. I also congratulate Rhoda Robinson and the HACEY Health Initiative for organizing an impressive event on something so central to the success of an entire nation: inclusion of people with disabilities.
Distinguished guests, friends, and partners: welcome! All protocols observed!
I’m honored to be with you to share with you Secretary Kerry’s message that the State Department is committed to disability inclusive diplomacy, including doing our part to support disability advocates around the world in advancing disability rights.
This month is not just a worldwide celebration of Persons with Disabilities, with the United Nations rightly recognizing the importance of inclusion under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and promoting the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which we strongly support. It also happens to be a great year for American history.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, passed in 1990. It took the United States a few decades of solid hard work by activists to convince Congress to pass the law.
We still have much to do. But since 1990, all public buildings in America and businesses have to make it easy for people with disabilities to do something as basic as get up to and across a raised doorstep.
Since 1990, in America, employers cannot refuse to employ someone because that person has a disability. If they do, they can be taken to court and they will likely lose.
Since 1990, in America, cities have infrastructure obligations. Cities have to make sure people with mobility difficulties can roll a wheelchair smoothly onto a sidewalk, and up into a bus. That blind people can use elevators with Braille lettering near the buttons, and hear the crosswalk signal emit a sound or voice recording when it’s not safe to walk across the street. That blind people can take a highly trained dog companion into public buildings and restaurants and hotels to see for them, and stop them before they walk into danger.
President Barack Obama in 2010 directed every agency in the federal government to hire more people with disabilities. He ordered each agency to create a senior position responsible for recruiting persons with disability, and for ensuring their workplace rights are respected. We now have more disabled people working in the federal government than at any time in the past 33 years.
We still have a lot to do. We have to do a far better job than we already do in education to make sure that we have curricula appropriate to disabled students, that we assess their performance fairly and accurately, and that teachers are trained and monitored to include people with disabilities equally and fairly in all classroom settings.
In the view of the United States, disability rights are not something you do as a matter of charity. Disability rights are a matter not just of law, but of universal human rights. And government has to lead by example. It’s hard to tell others what to do, if you don’t practice it yourself.
I’m happy to note that in Nigeria, including here in Lagos, and across much of Africa, governments at all levels are already learning and taking action to improve access to equal opportunities for the disabled in schools, in transportation, in hospitals and clinics, and especially in the workplace. Inclusion really does matter.
But governments are relatively new to this business. They are looking to civil society, to NGOs formed by creative people with disabilities, for ideas. Knowing what works, and what doesn’t, are equally important.
As many of you in this room can attest, the private sector knows better than anyone that you don’t have to wait for the government to do what is right. In fact, you probably shouldn’t, for good business reasons that companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron, and philanthropies like the Ford Foundation already know.
Some of you may know that when American activists started pushing for a law recognizing and enforcing the rights of the disabled, a lot of other American businesses tried to slow it down and stop it. It’s too expensive, they said. If you pass this law, forcing us to install elevators, and ramps, and offices configured for disabled people to reach and use a computer, we’ll go out of business.
Those American businesses, decades ago, were missing a huge, tremendous business opportunity. It all depends which end of the telescope you are looking through.
The World Health Organization and the World Bank, in a 2011 joint study, estimate that a whopping fifteen percent of the world’s population has some kind of disability. That’s one billion people.
In the United States, we have almost one in six, or 56 million people, with disabilities. In Nigeria, you have around 25 million persons with disabilities.
So I ask you:
- Business question number one: how can you afford NOT to find ways to tap into the talents of millions of people to strengthen your labor force?
- Business question number two: how can you afford NOT to find ways to market your products or services to millions of customers?
Wouldn’t you ask persons with disabilities how you could do both of those things far, far better?
Wouldn’t you ask people who are the most creative and experienced professional problem solvers on the planet – who solve immense challenges every hour of every day – how you fix your business challenges?
As business and education leaders, you can seize the initiative, and make sure that every one of your buildings is accessible to customers and employees and students with limited mobility or vision or hearing.
Include those millions of professional problem solvers. Hire them. Contract with them. Do deals with them.
It’s not enough just to hire them. You need to watch continuously, to make sure you promote them into senior positions. Not just as role models, but as the people in your organization who recognize the problems and have the power to set the policies that unleash your talented problem solvers. Make sure talented people with disabilities have the same opportunity to thrive as the rest of your workforce and your partners. You want those professional problem solvers to stay, and not to let your competitors steal their talents.
It’s not enough just to employ people with disabilities from top to bottom. Listen to them. Train them. Partner with educational institutions to train people with disabilities in the skill sets you have to have as a matter of business survival. The creativity and analytical skills they bring to the table will pay you back in countless ways.
We at the U.S. Consulate in Lagos like to point out that inclusion and access to opportunity are essential at every point in society, at every stage in life, in communities, in the schools, in the workplace. People with disabilities are friends, they are neighbors, they are creative colleagues, they are child prodigies – and they can be the saviors of a nation. Let me finish with an example from American history.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was 39 years old and as healthy as anyone, when polio struck, and withered his legs. It took him years to come to terms with it. He almost left politics for good.
In America in the 1920s and 1930s, stigma against people with disabilities was extraordinarily powerful. All too often, people with disabilities were shut away in asylums, or hidden from public view.
Roosevelt, however, made a conscious decision to go back to politics, as the vocation he loved.
In American political culture in the 1930s, while running in his first campaign for president, any sign of weakness could have finished him.
So rather than go on stage at political rallies in a wheelchair, Franklin Roosevelt, with nearly paralyzed legs, forced himself to learn to walk.
And he climbed onto stage after stage – assisted by another person, and with his cane. And he found the courage to speak. And he won.
Now, can you even imagine how much the world would have lost, if we had not permitted Franklin Roosevelt to get on that stage? What would have happened if we had not elected the person who led the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s? Who, together with our allies in World War II, led and fought with fierce determination to stave off the worst tyranny of the 20th century?
What if we had denied Franklin Roosevelt access to the highest office in the land? Would we still be talking about democracy, justice, human rights, and inclusion?
My friends, that is the kind of world-shaking, nation-saving achievement that people with disabilities, our professional problem solvers, can deliver – if we only make sure they are included in every part of life and society, without exception.
So I join you, and the United States of America joins you, with every fiber of our being, in calling for inclusion and full access to opportunity. These are human rights. It is the right thing to do. And inclusion matters more than we can possibly foresee.